During our recent pilgrimage to Unitarian roots in Boston we visited King’s Chapel, the first congregation in America to declare itself Unitarian in theology. It was, and remains, Anglican in its liturgy.
The Ten Commandments (Protestant version) are engraved on the sanctuary wall behind the altar rail-carved in stone, as it were. This is where they belong, of course. They do not belong on a big rock in a Montgomery courthouse, put there by a misguided judge who doesn’t understand the important difference between a democracy and a theocracy.
In Part II of this sermon, Carved in Stone, we’ll begin to look at the Ten Commandments, also referred to as the Decalogue (the ten words) and the mitzvoth, the laws.
(A mitzvah–from the Hebrew verb ‘to command’–is both a commandment and a good deed, the law and the ‘fulfilling of the law, or the commandment.)
It helps to look at the cultural context in which, and for which the original Ten Commandments were written. This, however, is somewhat speculative. The question for us is ‘how does this list of ten commandments relate to our culture, today?’
One of the quips we Unitarian Universalists make about ourselves is to refer to the Decalogue as ‘the ten suggestions.’ It’s good for us to lighten up a little when we can. We always run the risk of taking ourselves too seriously.
Still, we must take our cultural situation seriously-it’s a serious world out there, and we have serious work to do down there, “where the spirit meets the bone,” as poet Miller Williams put it.
We Unitarian Universalists believe that the Bible (all 66 books in the collection) was written by humans. We do not believe it was dictated by a distant god who spoke English, or Hebrew, or Aramaic. The Bible, at its best, helps reveal us to ourselves.to know ourselves better, so that we can grow and mature, and continue this process we call ‘evolution,’ and about which we have no shame in affirming. Darwin, after all, was a card-carrying Unitarian!
We know that human life has been evolving on this planet for a long time, and though times and cultural circumstances appear to have changed drastically in the 3,000 or 4,000 years since the oldest parts of the Bible were written, it’s clear that we humans are not very different from those ancestors from whom we inherited these stories. Indeed, they may have been a little closer to the religious truth, since they were closer to the earth-to Nature, which is God’s other name.
The distance between Biblical folks and us is about 1/1000th of human history. Not far!
It’s important for us to be Biblically literate-our culture is saturate with it. It’s important, too, to understand the meanings of the stories for today, as well as trying to understand what they meant for the ancient Hebrew people who wrote them.
This, then, is not an academic exercise as much as a spiritual quest.
Torah commentators refer to the Mt. Sinai event-Moses getting the Commandments-as the ‘second creation story.’
One commentator says, “The Ten Commandments were a renewal of the act of creation; inasmuch as man and all else that lives issued from the first act of creation, so the continuation of life depends on the second act of creation, the giving of the law. And just as the first act of creation made a division between chaos and order, so the second act of creation made a division between good and evil, between right and wrong.” (The Torah, a Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, p. 521)
The story says that Moses led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea, and they wandered in the desert for forty years. Then Moses climbed Mt. Sinai, stayed for forty days, and came down with the Ten Commandments, carved in stone.
This is the common religious theme: withdrawal and return. The Jesus story says that he withdrew into the desert for forty days. The Buddha story says that he withdrew, sitting under the Bo tree for forty days. Each of us withdraws and returns when we participate in worship. We withdraw to bed several hours a day. By withdrawing we’re better able to return and participate in our own life and to be involved with others.
It’s interesting to note that the location of Mt. Sinai, the location of so much of the Torah, is not identified. The commentators say, “.the place of Moses’ grave remains unknown, presumably in order that it would not become a place of pilgrimage and the person of the lawgiver the object of adulation or even adoration. Similarly, had the locale of the holy mountain been firmly known in later centuries, Jerusalem and its Temple could never have become the center of Jewish life, for they would have been inferior in holiness to the sacred mountain. Sinai thus became.a concept rather than a place.” (The Torah, a Modern Commentary, pg 520)
Moses himself may actually be a concept rather than an actual historical person.
The Genesis stories are mythological, of course. The Exodus story of Moses, the freedom march and the Ten Commandments, is a bridge between mythology and history. For me the Exodus story points to what we refer to as psychology or spirituality. These stories invite us to build our own theology.
Second-hand religion doesn’t work. Each person in a free society such as ours is required to work at the never-ending task of weaving every new experience into an ever-evolving sense of wholeness.
This is the implication of a democratic society. It’s not as much about going to the polling place to vote as it is going forth into the world from day to day, from hour to hour, with an open mind, building tolerance for differences while at the same time paying careful attention to the half-truths, the spin masters, and the outright lies intended to manipulate the masses.
Thoreau put it this way:
“The fate of the country does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.”
The first commandment in a democratic society is to pay attention, to listen to all sides, and take what you hear with a grain of salt, filtering it from yourself, your own experience, your own understanding up to that point. Some experiences encourage growth. Change.
When you pay attention to the deceit, lies, misrepresentations and manipulations of truth by our politicians, the greatest challenge is to avoid outright cynicism. You can get stuck in cynicism the way the story says the Hebrew people were in bondage in Egypt.
So we listen, filter what we hear and read through the lens of our own minds, integrating each new thought, new experience, new insight. That’s how we become whole persons. We have to weave each new experience, each new insight, each new question, into the fabric our what we call ‘the self.’
I am a verb. You are a verb. That’s what the voice from the burning bush said to Moses: “I AM THAT I AM.” That’s what the voice deep within us says to each of us. “I am in the process of becoming.”
Failure to weave the experiences of our lives leaves us fragmented, torn and alienated. When we are fragmented, torn and alienated we wind up repeating things that others tell us that we’re supposed to believe, but which we don’t really believe. There’s a not-so-subtle coercion to get in line, and since we want and need to be accepted, we march to the beat of those drums.
The first Commandment in the Hebrew version says,
” I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
(The Christian versions list the first Commandment as, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”)
What’s the difference? Apropos of the above comment about not making Moses the object of adoration, the Hebrew peoples’ first Commandment is meant as a reminder that Moses was not the liberator–God was the liberator.
Thus the first Commandment: “I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
I’m reminded what my Bible professor at B.U. said: “The Old Testament is one long warning against the dangers of idolatry.”
For me this Commandment, which is the lead or first Commandment, is a warning against the dangers of idolatry.
Two things stand out for me in this first Commandment:
First, it doesn’t sound like a commandment in the usual sense of the term. It does, however, sound like the chain of command-a reminder of who or what is ‘in charge’ here.
I’m reminded of the passage in Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.Know ye that the Lord he is God, it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves.”
The first Commandment is saying, “It is God who frees us, and not we ourselves.” Spiritual freedom consists mostly in the inability to violate your own moral, ethical code. That, for me, is the voice of God-the still small voice that speaks to me in the quiet of my own mind, in the secret places of my heart.
When I say ‘God’ I don’t mean a supernatural policeman, watching from on high. For me, God is the voice of deep insight-the voice of conscience. God doesn’t watch from on high as much as from deep within. When we listen we experience a kind of revelation: we can feel in our bones what’s right and wrong. In the depth we discover the soul.
The first of the Hebrew Commandments establishes a hierarchy; it is a reminder of our dependence. We are not self-sufficient. It is saying, ‘Moses didn’t free our ancestors-God did that.’
The first Commandment seems to be saying, “Don’t forget, you could not have gained your freedom on your own.” So it’s about humility, which is the cornerstone of spirituality.
It is a reminder that we should not make Moses or anyone else into an idol, a savior, an object of worship. Even God must not become an idol, an object of worship, but only that within us that urges us toward the good. God must remain, as Moses was told at the burning bush, a nameless God.
This is the message from our Unitarian forebears: Jesus is not God. God is One.
While it is not necessary to name God, it is necessary to acknowledge that there is a power so far greater than us. We must feel humbled in the face of it.
In the first creation story, Adam gave names to everything. Giving names to everything is basic-it’s what language is all about. We need to name things.
But God is not another one of the things, among all the other things in the universe. God is the energy that flows through the heart of all that is
God is simply, but profoundly, the urge in us to do what is right, the need to feel some sense of meaning and purpose in the world, to feel at home with one’s own soul.
Whitman says, “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.”
That’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the procreant urge of the world.’ It’s not about procreation, only. It’s about growth. It’s about change. It’s about the ongoing process of evolution, of which we are a part.
The voice from the burning bush calls to Moses: “Moses, Moses!” and he responds, “Here am I.” In other words, I’m present to this moment.
Then the voice says, “Put off the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
In the early stages of building a religious or spiritual life, we seem to need an object of worship.
It is a sign of religious or spiritual maturity to accept the limits of our knowing, to refuse to say that God is a being, a noun, a thing, which has a name and sits beside all the other things to which we give names.
Sandburg speaks to this in a wonderful little poem he called Primer Lesson, the first lesson, which we need to learn again and again.
Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is
not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they
walk off proud; they can’t hear you
Look out how you use proud words.
God can become one of those proud words! Sometimes I can see that some of the people who call themselves atheists are needing to distance themselves from the supernatural idol. They are expressing religious humility.
Humble atheists provide a wonderful paradox that makes them the most spiritual among us.
Of course atheists can be as arrogant as a Bible beating fundamentalists. ” Look out how you use proud words!” Arrogance comes from insecurity or defensiveness; so part of the atheist’s arrogance comes out of the defensive response to those like Roy Moore who demand that everyone march to the same religious drummer.the true believers.
God save us from the true believers!
Back to the first commandment: “I am the Lord thy God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’
The down side of this first Commandment is that it can be seen as promoting passivity.
The Zionist movement that arouse in the late 19th century to establish a homeland for Jews said, in effect, “We must not be passive; we must not wait for the imagined Messiah; if we wait for the Messiah we’ll never have a safe home, the anti-Semites will destroy us.”
In Fiddler on the Roof, when the people of Anitevka are told that they have three days, then they have to leave the village, leave everything they’ve worked for, leave their homes, their businesses, their schools. Someone says, “We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Tevye responds, “Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.”
Then Mendel, the rabbi’s son, says, “We’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?”
The Rabbi responds, “We’ll have to wait for him someplace else. Meanwhile, let’s start packing.”
As a Religious Humanist (with mystical leanings) I would say this:
The first Commandment in the Hebrew Decalogue suggests that Moses had a burning desire for freedom, (pun intended) which is to say, there is something in us-a potential at least-that moves us toward freedom and ‘out of the house of bondage.’
In the mythological story, Moses was already free. He was out of harm’s way-out of Egypt. But that’s a shallow form of freedom. Freedom has religious connotation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t lose his freedom in jail. He carried it with him wherever he went. Gandhi took his freedom into prison. Anyone who is moved by that inner sense of compassion is in touch with spiritual freedom. People sometimes tell me that they find themselves crying in church and they don’t know why. I think this is why.this deep sense of compassion which doesn’t have to be attached to any particular person, but is ready to be activated in response to the suffering of humanity.
John Dewey, one of the founders of the movement that came to be known as ‘religious humanists,’ used the word God to designate the process whereby the actual is transformed into the ideal.
Those who work for justice, like King and Gandhi, are attempting to transform the actual-the injustice-into the ideal-justice. This is Dewey’s notion of God. He stopped using the ‘G’ word because it caused so much dissention in the ranks of the Humanists.
Emerson said, “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being.”
Do you have a sense that there is ‘a necessary reason for your being?’ I’m here to remind you that there is!
That’s what is at the heart of the spiritual life–to feel at home here on the earth, here in this place today, here in your family of origin or the family you’re building now.
Moses, as a concept, is that which urges us toward freedom and justice. The voice from the burning bush, the burning heart of Moses and of you and of me says, “I have seen the affliction of my people.and have heard their cry.”
We hear the cry the cry of millions of children who go to bed hungry in this land of plenty.we see the affliction imposed by budget cuts when this administration takes money from the poor to give to the rich; we see the affliction of racism, the economic injustices that are so rampant; we’re aware of the affliction of heterosexism where gay and lesbian couples are denied the same rights that are given to hetero couples.
This, for me, is what the voice from the burning bush said to Moses: I have heard the cry of those who suffer from injustice, those who are in bondage, held down by the greed of those who are in power.that’s the voice of God in us.
Moses, as a historical character who wandered in the wilderness a few thousand years ago doesn’t move me; but Moses, the concept touches something deep in me.
I can identify with Moses the concept; the mythological Moses who took his shoes off when he realized that there was something sacred in him; the Moses who listened to the voice of God that was burning deep within him, a voice he could only hear when he was safe from Pharaoh’s harm, a voice he could only hear when he had liberated himself spiritually.
I can identify with the concept of a Moses whose religious maturity allowed him to embrace a nameless God; a Moses who was a man of compassion and determination.
One of our Unitarian Universalist principle affirms ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Isn’t the human conscience a hint of God’s presence?
The idea that there is a supernatural god in charge of everything-a god ‘out there,’ as Emerson put it, takes away the reason for your being and mine.
This is not an anti-religious statement. On the contrary, I believe it points to what is at the heart of all religion: the idea that we are here on earth to do what some call God’s work.
Moses as metaphor our inner sense of what’s right and what’s wrong is calling us.nagging at us.eating away at us. The religious paradigm says, ‘God called Moses.’
The religious paradigm in the Exodus story says that Moses climbed the mountain and forty days later he came down carrying the Commandments. Right and wrong was so clear to him that it was as if it was ‘carved in stone.’
Buddha sat under the Bo tree for forty days, and he woke up; he got in touch with the holy, the sacred-ness of all life, which we call enlightenment.
We’re here to help move humankind a step closer to becoming what we have the potential to be: free to love life, (or God, if you will), free from the idolatry of having ‘idols disguised as God,’ free from using the name of God in vain–for private gain, or for harm; free to ‘remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,’ free to honor mother and father, (those who nurtured us, and forebears who cleared the way for us); free from life denying hatred which is fueled by fear and causes us to kill, free to live a healthy sexual life, free from taking what belongs to another, free from wanting what others have-free from covetousness that kills the sacred sense of appreciation-appreciation for what we have rather than resentment for what we don’t have.
That’s the Ten Commandments in a nut shell. They begin with theological assertions: first, a reminder where freedom comes from; then an affirmation of God, and a warning not to confuse graven images for the nameless Spirit of God.
Then the rules for living: thou shalt not kill, lie, steal, commit adultery, and covet. These are the tendencies of our lower nature; so something in us-our higher nature, or a ‘higher power,’ if you will, urges us away from them-to move from the actual to the ideal.
We’ve been talking about change. (The Evolution of God-two sermons in September) So we naturally ask, ‘what is it that causes us to want to do what is good and right?’ That, in general, is what the Ten Commandments are all about. The foundation for the Commandments, then, is the essence of that thing in us that makes us human-that thing which we call the moral conscience, moral discernment.
We focused on the first Commandment in the Hebrew list. In future sermons I’ll go through the other nine commandments.
For now I’ll end with our Unitarian poet, Carl Sandburg’s poem, Prayers of Steel:
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue
nights into white stars.